Thursday, June 30, 2011

The red-cooked pork and bean curd of Zhejiang

In the movie It's Complicated, Meryl Streep plays a baker who whips up ice cream when she can't sleep.  I now understand the attraction of cooking when the rest of the world is fast asleep.  

Unable to keep my eyes closed the other night, I finally gave up and started reading an East China cookbook that looked really delicious.  Written by the daughter of the chef to the former presidents of Taiwan, it was packed with a whole lot of classics from around the Yangtze River area, and as the clock eased its way around to 5:00 am, the picture of red-cooked pork in there began to look more and more enticing.

"Red-cooked" food, if you've never tried it before, is one of the lodestones of Chinese cooking.  Just about anything solid - meat, chicken, fish, bean curd, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, hard-boiled eggs, carrots, potatoes, you name it - can be slowly braised in this homey sauce of soy sauce, wine, sugar, and aromatics.  

My mother-in-law was from Tianjin up near Beijing, and she said in no uncertain terms that red-cooked anything was northern food.  And so I had always thought that was the case... that is until I started reading up on this in my Chinese cookbooks.

On this one salient point, I'm afraid that my mother-in-law was wrong.  Every book I've read states in their own uncertain terms that red-cooked foods are a hallmark of eastern Chinese cuisine, out near Shanghai and thereabouts.  It's an area with some true classics.  The Dongpo Pork I introduced last fall is one of them, and others on my Great Hits list would be red-cooked fish tails (huashui), which is a whole lot better than it sounds, as well as its utterly addictive Wuxi Spareribs.

Reduce the sauce til syrupy
Today's dish is similar in some ways to that last dish, because it too features pork, and the sauce is a rich, velvety, sweetish sauce that relies on the gentle dang of dark vinegar to brighten the flavors.  Use any good, slightly fatty cut of good quality pork that you like - spareribs or pork belly would be terrific -because the fat turns into these buttery layers that contrast perfectly with the tender, flavorful meat.

So anyway, there I was in the wee hours, pulling a piece of pork shoulder out of the fridge and wondering how to make it without waking up the household.  This recipe doesn't require any frying, and I gradually wanted to get back into bed for at least an hour or two, so I congratulated myself when I suddenly recalled my dusty old crockpot.  Out it came, in went the ingredients without much preparation at all, and when I woke up later on, the house was perfumed from top to bottom.  Now that's what I call a perfect dish.

If you make it in a crockpot, the juices won't have the chance to reduce, so put the cooked meat and sauce into a pan or wok and reduce the sauce over high heat until it's syrupy.  Either serve the pork right away with a bit of the sauce or cool it off and store it for a day or two, which only makes it better.

The sauce is fantastic in its own right, so don't waste it.  Instead, cook something else in it, like bean curd or sliced carrots, and have yet another dish with a minimum of effort.

As with lots of Zhejiang dishes, this has dark vinegar in it and it tends to be a bit on the sweet side.  Use less sugar, if you like, and omit the vinegar if you'd prefer the milder Jiangsu style of flavoring.  But whatever you do, this will taste delicious!

Zhejiang style red-cooked pork  
Zheshi hongshao rou 浙式紅燒肉 
Serves 6 to 8 as part of a multicourse meal  

2 pounds pork belly or picnic shoulder, or about 2 to 3 pounds pork ribs cut into 2-inch pieces
6 tablespoons good quality regular soy sauce
4 to 8 tablespoons rock sugar or brown sugar
2 tablespoons good quality dark vinegar
4 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
10 tablespoons filtered water
1 inch ginger, thinly sliced
6 green onions, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces

Creamy bean curd
1. Rinse the pork and pat dry.  Cut the pork into 1-inch slices, and then cut each piece again into strips that are about 1 x 1 x 2 inches; if you're using pork ribs, cut between the bones.

2. Combine all of the ingredients in a crockpot, cover the pot, turn it on high, and once the liquid is hot, lower the heat and let the pork simmer for 2 to 3 hours, or until tender.  Iif you want to cook this in a wok, add everything to the wok, bring the sauce to a boil, cover closely, and lower the heat to the lowest setting, but keep an eye on the sauce, as it might boil away, and add a bit more water as needed.

3. When the pork is tender and the fat is creamy and luscious, reduce the sauce by boiling it down quickly until it is the consistency of maple syrup.  (It's important that the sauce be thick and gorgeous, because then it will cling to the meat, make it shiny, and give every bite that extra layer of flavor.)

An instant second dish
4. Serve immediately or store for later; steam the pork to heat it up.

Variation: Red-cooked bean curd is really simple.  All you need to do is cut up one block of firm bean curd into about 12 slices.  Place them in the thickened sauce (don't add any water, as the curd will release water as it cooks), bring the sauce to a boil, lower the heat, and then gently cook the bean curd until the sauce is reduced once again. Flip the slices over half way during the cooking process so that both sides get to absorb the sauce.


  1. I'm so happy to see that this works with tofu...since we have been eating less and less beef, pork, and chicken. The vegetarian recipes are very appreciated! Thank you greatly!

  2. You're most welcome! I too love vegetarian cooking and so am happy to oblige...